The Nativity, Bethlehem


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The Nativity
Location: Bethlehem
Date of visit: Monday, 25 December 2000, 12:00am

The building

[Editor's note: This report, from the MW archives, first appeared in 2017.]

The goings-on of the evening in question mostly took place in the home of a local family. A poor couple, Mary and Joseph, had turned up for the census that had been decreed to be taken, but there wasn’t any room at the local inn. The young woman was heavily pregnant and it would have been unthinkable to leave them outside. So the innkeeper asked around the community and found a family willing to take them in. The buildings around here usually have a place to keep animals, with a manger from which the animals can feed themselves. The reason for pointing this out will become clear later.

The church

Our prophets had for ages predicted what was about to happen. I understand a certain Publius Vergilius Maro, back up in Rome, wrote something about the birth of a divine child who would usher in a golden age, but my Latin is halting at best.

The neighborhood

What can one say about Bethlehem? It’s a little bit of nothing, just beyond nowhere, the best part of a day’s walk from Jerusalem. Locals will tell you of it being the ancestral seat of King David, but what with the Roman occupation and all, such times are a grey memory. The King David genaeology may play an important part in the identity of the place, but that identity is rather suppressed by Rome and their puppet Herod. Bethlehem is a quiet little town, especially at night, its dark streets making the starry sky above all the more brilliant.

The cast

It began with us shepherds out in the fields tending our flocks. You could count the ewes and lambs if you wanted to. But soon we were joined by – well, how can I put it – a large choir of angels. Later, when we arrived in town, we met the poor couple, Mary and Joseph. Then there was the homeowner and his family. Finally, we met the baby. Hebrew boys are not named until eight days after their birth, but Mary and Joseph had already decided on a name – Jesus – which Joseph said an angel had told Mary would be the baby's name. We might have been disinclined to believe the story of how she came to be pregnant and had the name chosen beforehand, though given what we saw in the fields, such skepticism seems ill-placed.

What was the name of the service?

I don't think anyone present called it by any particular name, but I would imagine that future generations will call it something like 'the Nativity.'

How full was the building?

It was an awful lot more full than either I am used to or like – though the fact that we shepherds turned up from off the fields probably didn’t help.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were several welcomes. The first was from a single angel, who, quite frankly, scared the socks off us! Once he'd said his part and the initial shock wore off, he was joined by a huge choir of his fellows, who started singing. Once they'd passed on their message, we headed down into Bethlehem to find this child they were talking about. They said that we would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. That is indeed the condition we found him in – though, truth be told, we were somewhat guided by the sound of a woman in the final moments of labour. A silent night it most certainly was not!

Was your pew comfortable?

Given how crowded it was and after making room for young Mary, nobody sat down. Some stood, some paced around, some knelt down to assist her. I think the most comfortable person in the whole room was baby Jesus. As the angels had foretold, he was wrapped up and put in the manger, which, as there were no proper furnishings to be seen, was used as a makeshift bed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The evening had been busy with chores such as laundry – our socks needed a good washing – but nothing noteworthy had happened. The air was far from balmy – indeed, the wind, making moan, felt rather frosty. But other than that there was no sound – none, that is, until the air was shattered by the arrival of the first angel.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The angel said: 'Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Books? No. We don't have access to books.

What musical instruments were played?

The angels sang unaccompanied, but the beauty of their song was far removed from any sound that any musical instrument could have made. There was, however, a little boy present who played some riffs on a drum he carried with him. And oh, the bells – it seemed as though every bell on earth was ringing.

Did anything distract you?

The animals were making assorted animal sounds, but the baby Jesus didn’t utter a single cry! Very unusual for an infant to be so quiet during a service. But the most distracting thing of all was an earthen vessel in which was some water and – lobsters! I'm quite partial to boiled lobster – love it, actually, even though it isn't kosher – but I couldn't fathom how they had gotten there. I almost hesitate to mention them lest people think it couldn't possibly have been true when the story is told ages hence.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Once the great company of the heavenly host appeared and started singing, the sound was astonishing. If I could describe it, it would be as silky thunder. There was something unutterably beautiful in the harmonies, yet it was sung with such passion, verve and strength, one couldn't merely admire it. It caught us up, invigorated us and warmed our hearts. The angels sang in Latin: 'Gloria in excelsis Deo.' A catchy little ditty; I wouldn't be surprised if we were to hear it again, and often.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Probably a bit too long.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — No one person preached per se. Rather, we all took turns in relating to the others what had happened. There may have been some repetition, but everyone was truly amazed at what we told them. Except for Mary, that is. She seemed quite serene and didn't say much – though that may have been because she was so tired from having just given birth.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We told everyone about how we had been out in the fields minding our business, when suddenly the choir of angels appeared out of nowhere. We repeated what the angels had told us and what sign we could expect to find, how we left our flocks in charge of one of our more incredulous apprentices, and how we made haste to Bethlehem, where we happened upon the present scene.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

You'd have thought it would be the singing, which was indeed wonderful. But there was something more than that. When we met the child, having heard what the angels had already said, we beheld not merely a baby, but hope. We had no doubt that this was indeed the Messiah. The promise that was contained in that tiny bundle of flesh was even more exhilarating than the singing of all the angels of heaven.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Oddly, I'd have to say it was meeting the first angel. It was the most frightening thing I've ever experienced. Such visions aren't exactly soothing. Even though the angels gave us just a glimpse of heaven, that revelation was enough to make one's hair turn white!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

There's always some post-childbirth cleaning up to do, and we were happy to assist. After that, several persons presented the baby Jesus with gifts they had managed to grab in haste on the way over (the little drummer boy, bless his soul, had only his drum to play). Joseph shook the hand of everyone present and said, 'Peace be with you.' A nice touch – I hope it catches on. With a spring in our step and a song in our hearts, we hurried back to the fields and to our sheep. All the while we sang praises to God, trying as best we could to emulate the angels. As well, we couldn't stop talking about all that we had seen and heard. On the way back, we noticed a bright star just beginning to peer over the eastern horizon, and we thought we could make out the silhouettes of three men on camelback.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Can't say I know what coffee is. We wanted to celebrate with a little wine, but we had to get back to our sheep.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

N/A – This was the kind of thing that only happens once in all of creation, let alone a lifetime.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Christian? What's one of those?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That child. To look at, he was nothing special. Just flesh and blood, like the rest of us. But the hopes and fears that were woven into that flesh and blood – it's just too good not to think about in every waking moment.

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